Monday, January 21, 2008

The Curse of the Information Age

He hurries down the sidewalk, oblivious to the crowds surging around him. He carries a bulging brown leather briefcase, as he types with his thumbs on a Blackberry, and talks aloud to no one--or perhaps to the blinking gadget nestled in his right ear.

As he steps off the curb, an arm shoots out, and pulls him back--just as a bright yellow taxi speeds through the space he would have occupied had his benefactor not stopped him. He barely notices. He means to thank the guy, but the light changes, and the guy moves off across the street before he can "Uh-huh...uh-huh..." his way out of the conversation with the contraption in his ear.

Twenty minutes later, he sits in his red leather desk chair, phone to his ear, absently mumbling, "um hmm...ya...m hmm..." every few seconds as he types an email. His Blackberry buzzes; he picks it up, stares at it for a moment, and types something.

"Uh huh..." he says to the person on the telephone.

You've seen the guy before. Perhaps he's even you. He's certainly me (occasionally). The lexicon of the language of success begins with the word "multitask". It's a quality, to be sure; it's a must-have if you want your resume to warrant a second look.

Today's successful executive...scratch that; today's successful businessperson...nope, scratch that too; today's successful employee...uh uh; that's not quite right either. You fill in the blank: executive, businessperson, employee, mechanic, student, parent--they all fit. Today's successful individual is expected to multitask his way to success.

I'm reminded of a guy I saw once in the drivers seat of a car stopped next to me at a red light. He was a businessman, presumably on his way to work. He had his pop-tart on a napkin up on the dash, as he held his cell phone between his shoulder and ear, and shaved with an electric razor. I remember watching him in adulation, thinking that a guy who could juggle all of that while at a red light, must truly be a star performer, a success bar none. I aspired to that level of professional greatness.

I now believe I've arrived. I'm disenchanted.

A recent report entitled "Information Overload: We Have Met The Enemy and He is Us", published by Basex, a leading business research firm and expert in "Collaborative Business Environments", asks the question, "How much information can any one person manage at a given time?"

The answer to that question, it contends, or rather, how accurately companies can answer that question when it comes to their employees' activities, may, in fact, prove critical in ensuring their long-term success.

We have entered the technology age, where every desk has a computer and a telephone; where everyone (including some of my daughter's first-grade classmates) has a cell phone; where Internet is found not only in offices and homes, but in Starbucks', airports and McDonald's; where you can not only talk on your mobile phone, but email, text-message, and even listen to music and podcasts on it. This is, of course, progress; because each of these devices, each medium or mode of transmitting information, enables the "knowledge workplace", a critical earmark of any successful company hoping to compete in the fast-paced "knowledge economy", and wishing to attract top-tier "knowledge workers".

And so we, in the business realm, do our best to adequately equip our army of faithful "knowledge workers". We stream the highest speed Internet connection directly to their desk. We drop in a telephone system (replete with voicemail, call-forwarding and dial-in message retrieval features), and place a phone on every desk. We outfit them with Blackberry's and PDA's. And then we send them out to battle.

And for all our enormous investment in those, the essentials of "knowledge working", have they, our select group of knowledge workers, contributed any additional value? According to Basex, this brave new world of information at your fingertips has brought an unexpected side-effect. According to the report, their research has shown that knowledge workers have a tendency to address information immediately; they fail to differentiate between urgent, and time-insensitive information. Thus, when an email pops up, they have a tendency to drop whatever they happen to be working on, and read and respond-regardless the urgency of the original message. When the phone rings, they abandon their urgent task, and jump to answer.

The net result, though, is that we knowledge workers tend to get distracted often through the course of a typical workday. Emails, text messages and phone calls, bombarding us from all directions, tend to cause our attention to bounce about like a ping-pong ball, rarely allowing us even a few uninterrupted moments to focus on completing a single task. Consequently, according to the Basex report, interruptions of this sort now take up approximately 28% of the average knowledge workers' day. This translates into 28 billion lost man-hours per annum in the United States alone. Assuming an average wage of $21/hour, this adds up to a total cost of $588 billion to companies in the United States, per year, all attributable to the advances brought to us by the age of information.

Yes, multitasking is ineffective. And the more you multitask, the less you get done. Lest you think yourself an exception to the rule, consider this: in 2005, Glenn Wilson of the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London gave an IQ test to a group of people who were to do nothing but take the test. He then gave the same test to a group of people who, while taking the test, were distracted by emails and ringing telephones. The results showed that the group who weren't distracted at all, who focused entirely on the task at hand, scored, on the average, ten (10) points higher than the group who had the distraction of ringing phones, and emails.

He then gave the test to a third group. This group was allowed to take the test uninterrupted, but only after having smoked marijuana. This group scored, on the average, six (6) points higher than the group who was continuously interrupted (and only four (4) points lower than the focus group). The evidence strongly suggests that the lack of focus brought about by the constant distractions that come with this age of information has a tendency to detract from the quality of work product produced. In fact, we might be better suited in taking away our employee's cell phones and laptops, and simply allowing them to smoke a bit of marijuana before work (Disclaimer: don't try this at home folks-please! The ideas and concepts contained herein are NOT the author's--particularly if you go try it and get in trouble by your parents).

What to do, then? Few companies can afford the productivity of their employees to be consistently crippled by 28%. That's a large enough percentage to drain many companies, especially in labor intensive sectors. It's impractical to yank out our networks and Internet, to cancel our mobile phone contracts, and turn off our email servers. No, technology isn't the problem. The problem lies within us.

What if you were to, the next time you sit down at the desk to focus on something, turn off the email program, or ignore incoming voice messages until some designated time later in the day? What if you were to turn the cell phone on silent, and place it in a desk drawer until the current project is finished? What if you were to ignore text messages until a specified time during the day? Could you then retain most of the valuable benefits of this information age, yet refrain from participating in the great information overload drain?

But then, you run the risk of ignoring a bit of time-sensitive information that might actually increase efficiency, were it known. And that's a risk that, psychologically, we're unwilling to take, to our collective detriment.

In short, information overload has forced us, if we ever hope to conquer it, to face the fact that we, as working individuals, have a problem with dealing with multiple concurrent flows of information. It drags down our productivity, but we can't seem to stop ourselves from allowing it to continue. If we are to ever reclaim that lost territory, that $588 billion per year, we're going to have to discipline ourselves into maintaining focus, even in the face of an avalanche of information.

This increased personal discipline will, I believe, be crucial in laying the groundwork for long-term success. In the absence of a focused knowledge workforce, and with the perpetual advent of new information technologies, we'll continue to see diminishing returns from our employees.

It's been this way, though, for all of recorded history. Each time a brave explorer pushed into uncharted territories, he was faced, at some point in his quest, with an obstacle that challenged his will to explore the new land. But the truly great recognize the obstacle, and work through or around it, still striving for their prize. The advances possible in this, the Information Age, are great. Enormous potential lies, largely untapped, in harnessing the full power of the knowledge economy. But it can, too, be our downfall.

Our charge is simply to discipline ourselves, and to maintain focus. In doing so, we'll most effectively channel all of the potential power at our very fingertips.

The Basex report is downloadable by clicking this link:

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